In The Happiest Refugee, Anh Do tells of his family’s struggles as they flee their native country of Vietnam to establish a new life in Australia. This is a journey full of perils—first as the family escapes Vietnam on a dangerous sea journey shortly after the end of the Vietnam War, and then as they face hardship and poverty in Australia. And yet, Anh overcomes many of the obstacles that he and his family face, and ends up as a successful comedian and celebrity in his adoptive land. Anh’s success is largely due to the values of courage and perseverance that often guide and orient his actions, values instilled in him by his parents—and which see him through to success and prosperity.
Both Anh’s father and mother embody the values of courage and perseverance in different ways. One of Anh’s father’s favourite mottos is “There are only two times in life, there’s now and there’s too late,” a motto which he repeats to his children over and over again, and which is absorbed by Anh. Indeed, on numerous occasions in his life, Anh’s father acts out of extreme courage. As a very young man, he saves his two brothers-in-law Thanh and Huy from the brutal work re-education camps to which they had been condemned in Vietnam after the end of the Vietnam War. He does so by dressing up in the uniform of a high-ranking Communist official, then simply walking into the camp and demanding the release of the two men. This act of courage pays off: the camp guards are so terrified and confused by the appearance of this high-ranking government official that they hand over Anh’s brothers-in-law and let them walk out of the camp with him, without realizing that they are being tricked. Anh’s father is also the one who oversees the family’s escape on a boat out of Vietnam, being responsible for steering it through the open sea, and beyond the perils of pirates as well as storms. Anh’s father, of course, is not without his major flaws—eventually, he abandons his wife and children in Australia. However, even while he is estranged from his father, and in spite of his rage at him, Anh often finds himself turning to his father’s heroic moments for inspiration. In a different way, Anh’s mother also models the values of courage and perseverance, by providing for her children—at a great cost to herself—once the family is abandoned by Anh’s father. Anh’s mother works tirelessly to feed and clothe her children, as well as pay for their school fees so that they can receive a good education. In persevering in this way, she ensures that her children have a better life than she had.
Anh follows in his parents’ footsteps by acting on the values of courage and perseverance time and again in living out his own life. After finishing law school—an education which is intended to lift him, his mother, and his two younger siblings Khoa and Tram out of their poverty—he decides to abandon law for a career in comedy. Further, he does this in spite of a ready job offer from a large law firm upon graduation. Having had the courage to abandon the safe path of a law career, Anh works tirelessly to establish himself as a comedian, taking up any gigs—paid or unpaid—that come his way. Within a year and a half, he achieves what it takes many comedians a decade to accomplish, if they’re lucky: he wins one of Australia’s most important comedy prizes, and establishes himself as one of the country’s foremost comedians.
Anh not only reflects courage and perseverance when it comes to making choices about his career, but also when it comes to his personal life. In law school, he is smitten by Suzie, the beautiful blonde law student with a bright smile whom he meets on the first day of class. Time and again, Anh makes his feelings known to Suzie, and time and again, he suffers rejection, as Suzie tells him that while she appreciates his friendship, she has no romantic feelings for him. And yet, Anh doesn’t give up hoping. Shortly after Suzie breaks up with a boyfriend, he again makes his feelings known, and this time they are reciprocated by Suzie. While Anh’s perseverance in pursuing Suzie may seem problematic in some respects, his own account suggests that he was always respectful of Suzie’s feelings and wishes, and was content to simply remain friends with her, as she wanted them to be. Suzie’s own changed feelings towards Anh suggest that, while Anh repeatedly made his feelings known, he never did so in a way that disrespected her boundaries so that she was repelled. On the contrary: her love for him eventually develops and grows.
Anh’s courage and perseverance lead him to immense success and prosperity. By choosing courage over cowardice again and again, he ends up not only as an extremely successful comedian, he also establishes an acting career, and becomes a celebrity recognized by many Australians on the street. He also finds fulfilment in a happy family life, one that is full of love.
In many ways, Anh’s story is one of courage and perseverance, values instilled in him by his parents, who model these traits in overcoming obstacles they faced in making the difficult decision to leave Vietnam and start a new life elsewhere. While Anh’s father does let Anh and his siblings down, Anh nevertheless adapts many of his father’s good qualities—often turning to Tam’s feats of heroism for inspiration in his own life. In telling his life story, therefore, Anh emphasizes that courage and perseverance played crucial roles in leading him to the success and prosperity that he now enjoys.
Courage and Perseverance ThemeTracker
Courage and Perseverance Quotes in The Happiest Refugee
One sunny afternoon my father walked into the remote re-education camp dressed as a high-ranking communist officer. He marched right through the front door of the commanding officer’s room.
“These two men need to come with me,” he demanded. The commanding officer was bewildered. He was afraid to disobey such a high-ranking official so he did not resist. My father then walked my uncles out of the camp, right through the front gate.
My extended family pooled all their money, called in favours with friends and relatives and sold everything they had—every possession—just to buy a boat. Getting your hands on a boat was an extremely risky business. They were only available on the black market and anyone caught trying to buy one could be jailed or killed.
Back on our boat one of the pirates grabbed hold of the smallest child. He lifted up the baby and ripped open the child’s nappy. A tiny slice of gold fell out. The pirate picked up the metal and wantonly dangled the baby over the side of the boat, threatening to throw the infant in. My father screamed at the top of his lungs, “We must save the child! We will fight to the death to SAVE THE CHILD!”
The school had two mottos. First: “Men for Others”—done deal as far as Mum was concerned. Here was a school that was going to teach her boys to look after others and, if she hadn’t drummed it into us enough at home, we’d get another dose at school. The other motto was: “Born for Greater Things.” Boom! Dad’s happy.
Law was perfect for some but not for me, I guess, so I enrolled in a visual arts course at Meadowbank TAFE. And I loved it.
People often asked me why I studied law and art at the same time “Why not?” was my answer. If there was a rule saying you couldn’t study full time at TAFE and uni simultaneously, I didn’t know about it. I’ve always found that if you apply yourself at the right time with the right intensity, you can accomplish just about anything. So many times in my life I think my naivety about what you supposedly could and couldn't do helped me make big leaps that others might think were over the top.
[…]I was eating my breakfast when Mum came running in the back door.
“What’s happened to the sewing machines?”
“What are you talking about?”
“The machines, they’re gone!”
I ran out the back and sure enough, our sewing machines had been stolen during the night.
I was angry, but Mum was absolutely shattered. She had saved up for years, and still owed money on those machines. The next month was desperately hard. My mum is an incredibly positive person but when those bastards took away the machines, they took away the opportunity for her to finally give her kids a better life. She tried to hide her pain but we could see it.
[Dave] gave me a range […] for an average headline comic, the salary was between fifty and hundred thousand. A light went on in my brain: That’s more than Andersen Consulting was asking me to do for a sixty-hour week. That’s it, I thought. I’m going to switch.
It’s incredibly difficult to describe the feelings that go on inside you when you’re on your way to see a father you once adored, but for eight long years have been fantasising about killing. You play out the whole thing over and over again with different scenarios: a joyful reunion full of happy tears; an angry reunion where you knock him out.
[…] I did a number of jokes about bull terriers and Datsuns and housing commission estates, and slowly I was getting a few chuckles. Then I moved on to footy jokes, farming jokes and kiwi jokes. Slowly, slowly, I won them over. The old guys finally realised that if they closed their eyes, this Vietnamese kid was actually just an Aussie comedian up there talking about his working-class childhood.
Dad volunteered to go, but Uncle One insisted that Dad should stay and wait, and that he’d go. So Dad and Uncle One split up the boat money between the two of them, and Uncle One went with the men, while Dad waited. An hour later . . . no Uncle One. An hour and a half later . . . no Uncle One.
“I had an ill feeling in my stomach, Anh, like something was wrong.” Dad looked up to the ceiling, and his face turned a deep red. “I felt an urge to go down the track, to see what had happened . . . in fact, as soon as Uncle One left with them, I felt an urge to track behind them.”
I listened stunned.
“I didn’t follow. I just waited.”
There were a bunch of speeches and then the prime minister stepped up to the microphone.
“The 2005 Young Australian of the Year is . . . Khoa Do!”
Jesus Christ! Khoa’s done it. My brother just won Young Australian of the Year.
Khoa, the baby dangled over the side of the boat by the pirates, the toddler that Mum dressed in little girls’ dresses, the fat kid who thought the homeless woman was going to eat him… had just won Young Australian of the Year.
Mum was bawling tears of happiness.
I look across the water and am mesmerised by the beauty of this magnificent setting. My parents set off on a boat trip many years ago to provide their children and grandchildren a better life. And here we are, thanks to them, enjoying this perfect day. In that moment I know I am happy. I look up to the blue sky and give thanks.